How Sierra Vista Park Showcases Upland Habitat
Not a Rosewood wetlands where “flapping herons wake” (W. B. Yeats) nor the bright green ribbon of the Truckee River snaking through Reno and Sparks, Sierra Vista Park gives us a view of how the 99% of non-riparian Nevada looks. Sitting about 800 feet above the valley floor, Sierra Vista Park will show a water drop at only one or two isolated places in the drier years; more can be found in wet years, after a snowmelt, or following a thundershower in a dry summer. The park is basically a dry, rocky and sandy, sparsely vegetated island of both natural and altered landscape in the midst of housing developments with their concrete, asphalt, and non-native yards.
At 209 acres, Sierra Vista Park is the largest park in the holdings of the City of Reno. It comprises the defunct 18-hole Northgate golf course, closed in 2009 due to lack of income, plus some attached parcels owned by the city; and it is buffered with some additional open space owned by the Somersett Homeowners Association. After its purchase in 2009, a conceptual plan for the restoration and improvement of the park was published by the city in 2015, and some of the improvements have since taken place. In early May 2021, for instance, we saw the demolition of the former golf course clubhouse which had become a vandalized eyesore.
Restoration of such a large expanse that was once a golf course presents significant challenges. However, as I walk the park, I find that nature itself has already started the process. Those areas that were formally “the rough” have continued fairly unchanged since 2009 with rabbitbrush, sagebrush, bitterbrush, ephedra, and desert peach being the dominant shrubs. Here and there are native grasses and flowering plants. Those areas that were formerly fairways and greens have sprouted these same plants, yet not as prevalent or large as their cousins in the rough. Thick mats of former turf have added some welcome humus for these plants to establish themselves.
Trees are somewhat rare around this parkland, as they would be if the park were entirely in a natural state. Some small willow groves dot the drainages, providing important habitat. Siberian elms are found at various locations around the park. Although not native trees, these elms invite admiration for their hardiness, growing in low-moisture conditions that defeat native trees. Around the old golf clubhouse and parking lot, a few coniferous trees were planted while the course was in use, and they still exist today. Less common trees are native chokecherry, cottonwood, the invasive Russian olive, and at least one invasive tamarisk.
However, as with most uplands in our area, the cheatgrass has invaded. Already in May, I see it setting seed and dropping them into the thirsty soil, perhaps to sprout early next year. Mustard plants, blooming yellow, will soon cover much of the park, and the dreaded whitetop will follow with its white blooms. Invasive plants like these are expected all around the Truckee Meadows and will be difficult to eradicate in this park, much the same as they are at the Rosewood Nature Study Area, which is also a former golf course in the process of being restored.
I walk the “perimeter path” often, a wide line of crushed granite that extends for about two miles around the heart of the park. This affords an easy walk, with perhaps 200 feet of elevation change, by which the salient assets of the park can be seen and enjoyed. However, if you really want to know the park, you need to get off the perimeter path onto some of the old golf cart routes and even into the rough along the drainages. Here I spot an occasional coyote and even got a rare sighting of deer prints this past winter. The small groves of trees are alive with birds. In the open, I see and hear songbirds flitting about and especially the magpies squawking like disturbed owners of the park. The few willow thickets are home to a variety of birds and rodents while rabbits scurry about everywhere.
From higher points on the paths, one has wonderful views of the city to the east and the south. On a recent cloudy and cold day in May, the evening sunlight glinted off downtown Reno while the showers in south Reno descended from the gray clouds. The Carson Range stands nearby, offering snowy landscapes in winter and spring. Lastly, one can turn to Peavine Mountain uphill to the north. It is not uncommon for a hawk to grace these views because the wide-open parkland closely represents their natural habitat before Reno spread out to the west.
If venturing below the detention basin, one comes upon a delightful trail of stone art. Placed by who-knows-who, likely several people, these small smooth rocks are painted with short uplifting sayings and simple artwork.
As one walks the perimeter path, they encounter four signs explaining the history and importance of this parkland. These are only an introduction, and a complete history of the park is in development as part of the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation’s Parks Project. The history reaches farther back than its use as a golf course. Some stretches of barbed wire fence remain, a reminder of former cattle grazing when the landscape alteration began. Here and there can be found other artifacts of those prior years, such as decayed lumber or rusty tin cans.
The conceptual plan of 2015 called for the building of bicycle trails, which has been largely completed. A network of trails, some challenging, now covers the park, and these are augmented by the numerous old golf cart and maintenance paths of asphalt. On a nice day, dozens of bicyclists will be out enjoying these trails. However, I am somewhat dismayed by the number and extent of new trails being cut through the park, splitting habitat into smaller and smaller pieces. In any restoration work, these types of trails need to be closed and new ones discouraged.
Both nature and recreation can coexist in this large park. The conceptual plan calls for adding a community center, signed nature trails, some outdoor art, an archery range, and more. This park has great potential to be a destination for people of many interests. Those simply wishing a respite are easily accommodated — walking the many paths, one finds a few little glens that offer silence, shade, and cooler temperatures. The presence of water in wetter years even supports cattails and other rushes in some of those glens. A detention pond at the south end of the park is a reminder that thunderstorms can load tributaries to the Truckee River with a gush of stormwater at times.
All in all, not only does this park serve as an example of Nevada's tenacious native upland habitat, it also serves as an example of an area with great potential if only given the proper attention, restoration, and love it deserves to be afforded.
David von Seggern has been the local steward for Sierra Vista Park since 2016. He has photographed the park quarterly since then and visited it almost weekly in that time. David is moving from Reno, however, and is seeking someone to carry on his stewardship. He can be reached at email@example.com or 775-303-8461. David would gladly meet with anyone interested to give a personal tour of the park.